Education as Storytelling
By Dr. Martin Rayala
I recently found myself exploring an unfamiliar environment half-way around the world having conversations with my son Cory in California, my friend Brian in Florida and a group of people from around the world I had never met before. I was in a virtual reality space created by a company called Altspace VR. Oculus headsets transported us from our own separate realities into an alternate space where we could see each other’s avatars, walk around together and engage in conversation just like being at a cocktail party together. I was experiencing a virtual environment and a new kind of storytelling.
In this issue of The Journal of Media Literacy we explore Education as Storytelling and the implications for media literacy. The proliferation of new media formats has created a high bar for effective storytelling that present a challenge to traditional education, schooling and learning as well as for media production and consumption itself. The days are numbered for traditional talking head news reporting and stand-and-deliver classroom instruction. Audiences and students expect greater engagement, high fidelity images, low lag times, and instant access to unfolding global narratives.
The recent launch of the joint NASA/SpaceX manned spaceflight from Florida to the International Space Station (ISS) was an example of the high fidelity, real-time storytelling audiences will expect in the future. Millions around the world were able to see startlingly clear videos of the launch and docking from multiple camera angles as the events unfolded. It was like watching a movie. In fact, plans are underway to produce a movie actually shot in space with box office superstar Tom Cruise. It is likely that, through mixed, augmented and virtual reality, we will soon be able to be there “in person” through avatars in a virtual reality platform. It is likely that much of the funding for colonies on the Moon and Mars will come from media conglomerates producing reality shows that allow us to see the trials and tribulations of adopting to day-to-day multiplanetary living. Media storytelling will be one of the major industries on Mars along with scientific research, agriculture, 3D printing and space tourism.
Martin Rayala, Ph.D. is a professional development and curriculum specialist in art, media and design education, supporting K-12 design education efforts across the world. Dr. Rayala is the founder of the Ensō Education Institute. He is a former curriculum supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction who has taught at the elementary, middle, high school and university levels. He is co-founder of Design-Lab Schools and created an innovative high school that received a $10 million XQ Super School Award. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the National Art Education Association and on the Editorial Board of The Journal of Media Literacy. He worked with Marieli Rowe to develop The Journal of Media Literacy from a small newsletter to the journal it is today. Dr. Rayala taught at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. His numerous honors include NTC’s 2015 Jessie McCanse award.
Storytelling has become a cottage industry with the explosion of outlets like TED Talks, digital videos, movies, television, streaming media, video games, blogs, vlogs, and ubiquitous social media platforms. Amateur and professional storytellers vie to become “influencers” and accumulate the greatest number of followers for their stories. Hard-nosed business and political leaders are coming to learn that data, facts, bullet points and features are not enough to engage support without compelling stories. The social and cultural activity of sharing stories, sometimes with improvisation, theatrics or embellishment, are common in every culture. Each has its own stories or narratives, which are shared as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation or instilling moral values (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storytelling).
Storytelling used to be largely oral with traditions ranging from prehistoric storytelling around a fire to the parables of Jesus (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable). The immense popularity of TED Talks has created high distinctions for compelling storytelling with several books, videos and other resources to help people become better storytellers. Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk is the most viewed example of delivering “ideas worth sharing” in an engaging and entertaining manner.
Among the many books written about how to deliver compelling TED Talks, Akash Karia’s TED Talks Storytelling points out that the best speakers on the TED stage are the ones who have mastered the art of storytelling (www.AkashKaria.com). Karia says many speakers make the mistake of starting a presentation by introducing themselves, thanking the people for inviting them to speak, and saying what they intend to talk about. This seems like a perfectly sensible and polite way to begin a talk. TEDsters know this is the way to lose an audience. In the critical first few moments of a presentation it is best to begin with a relatable story that takes the audience along on a journey. Storytelling is hardwired into our brains.
I currently live in Hollywood, California, which is one of the world’s leading entertainment centers full of masterful storytellers. In fact, George Lucas, a master storyteller himself, has created a museum about visual storytelling in all its forms called the “Lucas Museum of Narrative Art” (https://lucasmuseum.org). The museum will present a permanent collection and rotating exhibitions that feature illustrations, paintings, comic art, photography, and an in-depth exploration of the arts of filmmaking (including storyboards, costumes, animation, visual effects, and more). Extensive education programming designed for all ages will explore innovative ways for visitors to engage with narrative art.
One of the most powerful tools for people in the narrative arts is “storyboarding.” James Fraioli, in his book, Storyboarding 101 provides a crash course in storyboarding that should become part of one’s understanding of how to tell visual stories. Fraioli devotes a quarter of his book with advice for would-be professionals in visual storytelling to how to move to Hollywood where so many of the jobs are located.
My friend John Ramirez is a story artist in Los Angeles. His job is to visualize a story, often in the form of drawings, so that animators, directors or cinematographers can see how a story might be told visually by seeing key frames or points of action in a story. Quick pencil drawings and marker renderings are two of the most common traditional techniques used by story artists, although nowadays John uses a digital tablet to do most of his work. He applies his skills to visualizing scenes in movies, television shows, the creation of theme parks and even award-winning floats for the Pasadena Rose Parade.
Companies like Disney, DreamWorks, and Pixar thrive on their ability to tell stories. Walt Disney popularized the idea of the “theme park” by taking an “amusement park” and adding stories. Walt Disney tasked his animators to apply their visual storytelling skills to telling stories in spatial three and four dimensions and created a separate company called “Walt Disney Imagineering” to create theme parks instead of animated films. Dr. Carissa Baker from the University of Central Florida in Orlando refers to theme parks as “spatial narratives” (http://www.ensoeducation.com/).
Ed Catmull, President of Disney Animation and Pixar Animation, wrote Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration to explain how Pixar managed to make over a dozen award winning box-office animated films in a row. The famous Khan Academy partnered with Pixar to produce “Pixar in a Box” to help students learn about the craft of storytelling (https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/pixar/storytelling).
Dean Movshovitz in Pixar Storytelling: Rules for Effective Storytelling Based on Pixar’s Greatest Films outlines elements of effective storytelling like core ideas, compelling characters, creating empathy, drama, conflict, structure and theme.
The seminal work on the classic story arc is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey where he outlines the critical features of most stories told throughout the ages. There are copious examples and visual representations of his Hero’s Journey that have been developed over the years. The structure he outlines can be seen in everything from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings.
Ellen Lupton is a curator of exhibits for the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Arts MFA at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) in Baltimore. She references Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in her book Design is Storytelling in which she explores connections between storytelling and designs that depict action and stimulate curiosity. Effective storytellers and designers convey emotions, feelings and personality beyond simply providing information and ideas.
The challenge for education, schooling and learning is to learn from storytelling processes and practices to make learning more compelling and engaging. How is it possible that schools entrusted with exposing students to the most amazing stories and achievements in human history have somehow managed to make it “boring” and “tedious”? Education, schooling and learning need to be transformed so that schools become “the happiest places on Earth.”
In her book, The End of Storytelling: The Future of Narrative in the Storyplex, Stephanie Riggs points to new forms of storytelling in virtual, augmented and mixed realities that go beyond the traditional storytelling techniques used in books, plays and movies. New immersive narratives are being developed that take advantage of innate capabilities of emerging media technologies. Riggs describes Storyplex as immersive narratives that involve a complex interwoven network of story, technology and humanity. She points out that many are constrained by the practices of traditional storytelling and have difficulty utilizing the particular capabilities of new technologies. She says, “Technology alters what is possible, which in turn expands our perception of what is possible.” Established ways of thinking and habits of mind limit our ability to expand into the possibilities of a new reality.
We invite readers to join the National Telemedia Council and the Ensō Education Institute in the Decade of Imagination 2020-2030 as we explore new media in education, schooling and learning through this and future issues of The Journal of Media Literacy and related events at the World Expo in Dubai and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles (www.EnsōEducation.com).